Regathering the flock
Sheep are mentioned more than 500 times in the Bible. Not surprisingly. Sheep were a mainstay of Hebrew culture. They were a primary food source and a necessity for the sacrificial rituals in the temple. So when David wrote, “The Lord is my Shepherd” or Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” it would have resonated immediately with the audience. The image of God’s people as his well-loved flock is woven throughout scripture.
I don’t know how many sheep ranchers will read these words. I suspect not too many. But we are sharp enough to understand some fundamental sheep “dos and don’ts.” At the top of the list would be this one: don’t wander away from the flock. It is dangerous to be alone! Luke’s parable about the shepherd who leaves behind the 99 in search of the one wandering lamb is one of the most tender expressions of God’s persistent, pursuing care for his children.
Even my favorite title, “Pastor” Mark, is a reflection of this sheep imagery. The origins of the word Pastor mean “to lead a flock to pasture; to care for them and cause them to eat.”
So let me speak to you as a pastor who loves the sheep entrusted to his care: my number one pastoral priority right now is to regather my flock. I have said this to our elders. I have said this to our staff. COVID presents an existential risk to the American Church and I feel passionately about protecting ours. And lest you think me hyperbolic…David Kinnaman, the president of Barna, a highly respected research firm, predicts that as many as 20% of American congregations will close shop within the next 18 months. That comes to about 66,000 churches! Over the next 18 months!
For me, this is not an institutional issue. It is a human issue. Because those same researchers predict that, as a result of the changes in worship habits forced upon us by COVID, as many as one-third of churchgoers no longer attend church in any way. And that same research suggests that those new non-attenders are suffering emotionally.
Put differently, the longer COVID delays or diverts people from church attendance, the more costly it is to them emotionally and spiritually and the less likely they are to return once things are “normal” again.
For all these reasons, Chapel Hill was among the first churches in our area to return to in-person worship guided by CDC recommendations. Because of attendance restrictions of 200 people, regardless of the size of the venue (in our case, 1,500 seats!), we are providing three morning services. And 10 Christmas Eve services. For those who can do so prudently, we are encouraging a return to in-person worship. And for those Chapel Hill folks who feel unsafe, we have done our best to provide an excellent online worship experience. So that even if we cannot all be in the same room, we can still be “together” at the same time.
Which is the rationale behind the recent change to Chapel Hill Online. Our Sunday services will continue to be live-streamed…but not on demand. Which means you will be able to watch the full services only in real time, along with the rest of your congregation. For those unable to join us for online Sunday worship, we are providing a custom-made online service that includes the same message in a shorter format, one that is more effective and shareable online. (AND, we continue to provide the audio version of our sermons on our website.)
I realize this decision makes online worship less “convenient.” But honestly, as your pastor, I am less concerned with convenience and more concerned with regathering our flock. I don’t want weekly worship to become another Netflix-type option. At this time, when it is still not possible for all our members to meet in person, a starting point would be for us to keep our “Sunday morning” muscles limber…and “gather” that way, at least.
As has been the case throughout COVID, we will continue to review everything to make sure that we are doing the most good for the most people for the sake of our Great God.
So…I’ll “see” you Sunday, in person or otherwise!